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“Brain drain” hurts families, businesses and the country

Professionals and entrepreneurs leave a "dead end" Nicaragua in search of better opportunities and conditions to develop and progress

From left to right: Jorge Hurtado, graduated in Journalism; Jessica Palacios, graduated in Marketing; and Edgar Iván Cubas, graduated in Tourism and Hotel Business Administration | Photo: Courtesy, Confidential

Iván Olivares

7 de septiembre 2021


When Jorge Hurtado saw that practicing journalism in Nicaragua was an increasingly dangerous profession and that the economic outlook was not improving, he had to leave behind a promising career, which included closing his own media company. He went to Colombia, where an international news media company hired him to take advantage of his talents.

Jessica Palacios was happily employed by the company that hired her the same day she defended her thesis, but the conviction that there was no future for her and her husband in Nicaragua pushed them to look for job options in Europe and southern Central America. Fortunately, the company she works for was able to offer her a position in Guatemala, and they both went there.

Edgar Iván Cubas looked for a job at a call center after the airline where he worked for 15 years in Nicaragua closed its operations. He realized that he did not want a routine and conformist job, and emigrated to the United States, where he works in manual labor, with the conviction that his talent and skills will give him access to a better paying job, which will allow him to recover the standard of living he had in Nicaragua.

Like them, thousands of Nicaraguans leave the country every week for the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, Spain and several other European countries. Political scientist Manuel Orozco estimates a new migratory wave of 60,000 Nicaraguans of all academic levels to the US, as the socio-political crisis affecting the national economy deepens, causing suffering to families who see their children leave, and harming companies, which lose professionals and qualified technicians. 

The phrase 'brain drain' is used to refer to the loss suffered by a country when its scientists and professionals emigrate in large numbers. It takes into account the impact on the development of that country, as well as on the specialized labor market, and the cost of their training, which from that moment on benefits the host nation.

“The brain drain occurs when a person leaves his or her country of origin, given that the cost of staying is higher than the benefit of doing so. And in Nicaragua, during the last three years, we have seen how the cost of staying has been growing: insecurity, cost of living and the benefit in employment”, while the possibility of moving inside the country and the quality of life decrease, assures economist Rodrigo Quintana.

The problem of losing those who know the most 

“When the labor market loses an important part of its qualified personnel, it is essential to quantify that loss, in the sense of which economic sectors are mobilizing more professionals, and in order to make projections” adds María Estelí Jarquín, a specialist in scientific diplomacy.

“As far as I know, such a registry does not exist. The only ones that keep a certain level of records of entry and exit to the country is Migration, but they do not keep track of the schooling of people entering and leaving the country. Other countries do have some kind of record,” Quintana explains. 

The economy is also affected by the outflow of skilled labor, whether they are technicians or skilled workers who perform an activity that requires specific skills, reports the manager of an agro-industrial company that is part of the tobacco export chain, located in the north of the country.

The manager explains that the drain of personnel affects many sectors. He notes that some people leave for political reasons. “Although they themselves are not persecuted, the prevailing atmosphere in the country drives them to look for other horizons, whether they find an opportunity or not”, he clarifies. 

In this case, “it is a definitive migration, which takes the whole family with it”. Others leave for economic reasons, leaving the family behind, to take advantage of the job opportunities offered by the U.S. economy, perhaps motivated by the success stories they hear from other migrants.

This source knows the case of a company that manufactures cigar boxes, which lost four of its twenty employees, as well as a larger one, with a payroll that exceeds two hundred workers, which month after month must liquidate about twenty employees who quit to go abroad.

“The Nicaraguan cigar industry has an excellent quality/price ratio, but this makes us lose advantage. The brain drain prevents us from raising productivity and taking it to other levels, plus we are forced to retrain new personnel, not to mention that we are wasting the demographic bonus” he points out. 

On the road to becoming another Cuba, another Venezuela

Edgard Iván Cubas, 39, graduated from the University of Commercial Sciences (UCC) where he studied Tourism and Hotel Business Administration. He found employment at Delta Airlines in 2005, where he worked for almost 15 years, both at the counter, receiving passengers, and in the boarding area, and even on the ramp, sometimes performing the delicate task of distributing the cargo in a balanced way, to ensure the balance of the plane.

Cubas describes it as a job he did not want to leave, because the multiple responsibilities entrusted to him made him feel part of a larger machine that requires 800,000 employees to guarantee its global presence, but also because of the benefits, which included training, quality medical care, and travel facilities.

That was until the crackdown came in April 2018, and the frequency went from up to six flights a week, down to four, three, “until September, when we were down to one flight a week. Only on Saturdays”, he recalls with regret. 

Edgar Iván Cubas, graduate in Tourism and Hotel Business Administration //Photo: Courtesy

Despite the difficulties, “the airline did its best not to withdraw its route from Managua, but everything got worse because of covid-19. Unfortunately, the government has not allowed any U.S. airline to enter the country,” by demanding sanitary requirements that other countries did not require, which led the airline to close operations on May 7.

When he ran out of work, he applied to a call center, where he only worked for six months, because he could not deal with the routine, so in December 2020 he emigrated to the United States, leaving behind the house which was in the process of buying, and his car, to go to the 'country of opportunities'. He knew that he did not go to do office work, but rather construction or remodeling, or working in a bar or restaurant.

He acknowledges that Nicaragua “is losing a lot” due to the flight of technicians and professionals like him, and although he longs more than anything to return to the life he had in his homeland, he knows that he needs a membership card to work in the place that pays good salaries: the government.

Other than that, he can only find “conformist jobs that I don't want to do. Working just to eat, and that’s it? No. You have to improve your life,” he says, pointing out that “we are going backwards. Unfortunately, we are going to be a Venezuela, or a Cuba”.


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Looking for options to improve

Jessica Palacios, 32, has a degree in Marketing from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). She proudly shares that on the same day that she was preparing to defend her thesis, the UCA called her for an interview. She did the defense and the job interview the same day, and stayed there as an intern. The university would hire her soon after.

She then specialized in Digital Marketing with courses in Nicaragua and Panama, leading her to become a regional marketing manager for that company in 2018. 

Although remote working allows her to fulfill her obligations as long as she has connectivity, in mid-November 2019, she and her husband made the decision to leave the country, “we saw a very unstable situation coming in Nicaragua, very difficult for young people, who are the most affected in the end, thinking about our professional future”. 

Additionally, the tax reform put both national and multinational companies “in a more complicated situation, which ends up being reflected in the labor market. In closed doors, in lack of professional growth, in stagnation, and we decided not to view the situation with romanticism, but we said: “we do not see this changing”, so “we decided to look for opportunities elsewhere, because our country does not offer us those opportunities”, he says. 

Jessica Palacios, Marketing graduate | Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Palacios

Although they initially looked for options in Europe, Costa Rica and Panama, thinking of migrating legally and working as professionals, they were fortunate that the company offered them a position in Guatemala, to serve the regional market from that country.

However, they both long to return to their homeland,because “we never saw ourselves leaving our country, our family. It is not easy to leave your family, your life, our home”, she sees few options for the political changes that the country needs, especially because “we don’t have a strong opposition that can lead us out of this situation”. 

She refers to “the lack of freedom of expression, the tax reforms that end up stifling companies”, which are also besieged by the mayor's offices, the Mitrab (Ministry of Labor), the DGI (General Directorate of Customs). “If a multinational company, which is so big and has so much power, starts to be in subsistence mode, it's a sign that everything is going wrong in Nicaragua,” and that means there are very few options for personal progress, she argues. 

Learning, to return to teaching

Journalist Jorge Hurtado, 31, graduated in 2007, and since then, he gained experience doing written press at El Nuevo Diario, in youth stations, and on television for Vos TV, where he did news, magazine, and television production, until he decided to become an entrepreneur, creating a company called Tresmedia Producciones, to organize events and produce videos for commercial companies.

In 2018, he resumed his journalistic career, “when the political and social crisis began in Nicaragua, and several media began to contact me to do correspondent work,” he recalls. 

Hurtado left the comfort of having a fixed pay to risk being an entrepreneur, because “you reach a point where companies don't offer you better salaries. You reach a certain limit, because there are limitations in the media, especially with the monopoly that exists in Nicaragua, which takes away options because many media are bought or financed by the government”, so there is no opportunity to freely exercise journalism.

That is why he decided to create a company that would allow him to do journalism, documentaries and independent investigations, so that journalism would become what it is for him: his passion, even though it might not always be enough to pay the payroll or cover his debts.

Jorge Hurtado, Journalism graduate | Foto: courtesy

“Since 2018, going out with a camera to record on the street is dangerous for anyone. You are a target for paramilitary groups. On more than one occasion we were detained, they took pictures of us, they chased us in vehicles. This is a reality experienced by independent journalists and foreign correspondents working in Nicaragua. There is a very hostile environment to develop journalistic work”, he describes. 

Now, Hurtado works in Colombia, for France 24, an international news media. His goal is to learn a lot, to replicate his knowledge one day, when he feels it is worth returning to Nicaragua, but also “because my family is there, because I feel that it is also a country of great opportunities that are not being exploited, or that until now have been limited on purpose, to keep a certain group in power”. 

“I know, and I am sure, that just as we Nicaraguans left to succeed abroad, so many of us will return when the conditions are right, to bring our country forward, to share our knowledge and our experiences, and to do great things for Nicaragua”, he reflects. 

If bridges are built, not everything is loss

María Estelí Jarquín, the expert in scientific diplomacy, considers that not everything is a loss for the migrant-sending country. “We live in a completely connected world in which belonging to networks is fundamental to advance in any field of knowledge”, so people who leave their country of origin are creating a possibility of development for the country they left behind.

The departure of qualified personnel generates scientific and academic bridges with other countries, from which “new professional connections, new academic links, perhaps even business, or forms of entrepreneurship can emerge. I see it as a possibility, an enormous opportunity that opens up in the midst of the difficult political, economic and health circumstances that the country is experiencing”. 

Looking at the macro level, economist Quintana points out that “obviously, those countries that do nothing to maintain economic stability, to create jobs, will gradually lose human talent and that will take its toll on the country's labor productivity”.

“When a country has low labor productivity, it tends to have lower growth. This is because it reaches its production frontier, which can only be pushed when you have more talent, more innovation, more people creating jobs, and that is normally done by people with higher qualifications”, he concludes. 

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff


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Iván Olivares

Iván Olivares

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Durante más de veinte años se ha desempeñado en CONFIDENCIAL como periodista de Economía. Antes trabajó en el semanario La Crónica, el diario La Prensa y El Nuevo Diario. Además, ha publicado en el Diario de Hoy, de El Salvador. Ha ganado en dos ocasiones el Premio a la Excelencia en Periodismo Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, en Nicaragua.